TUSCALOOSA — One by one, as usual led by a couple of its seniors, the Alabama softball team high-fived and hugged nearly every one of the more than two dozen fans and family waiting to greet them when their Swift Air charter plane landed Monday afternoon at the Tuscaloosa Regional Airport.
It was a hero’s welcome for a special Crimson Tide squad — nicknamed Team23 to commemorate the 23rd year of Alabama’s program — that saw its magical and expectation-shattering run this season end a game shy of the Women’s College World Series national championship final with Sunday evening’s 7-3 semifinal loss to No. 1 Oklahoma in Oklahoma City.
“It was just a fun ride,” longtime Alabama head coach Patrick Murphy said Monday.
Tide senior Caroline Hardy, whose clutch pinch-hit RBI single with two outs in the bottom of the eighth against Oklahoma was the difference in a 1-0 extra-inning win Sunday afternoon that forced the necessary semifinal nightcap, echoed her coach’s comments.
“Man, it was fun,” Hardy said Monday afternoon. “The seniors, after our freshman year (2016), we said we wanted to duplicate the leadership quality and the skills of the seniors that we had our freshman year. And I think we did that, and it showed this year. … Being a senior yourself and seeing people buy in, really commit to what it takes to be a winning team, it’s fun.”
It was also hugely successful, probably even more so than many anticipated — especially those Southeastern conference coaches that incorrectly picked eventual regular-season champion Alabama to finish eighth in the league during the preseason.
“It was definitely one of the most fun teams we ever had to coach,” Murphy said. “Just low maintenance, really good kids, everybody accepted their role, played it to perfection. … They were so easy to coach. It’s easily one of my most favorites, and probably the most fun I’ve had since either 2014 or 2012 for sure. … It was just a really fun ride.”
This year’s Crimson Tide tied a program record for wins in a season at 60, matching the total set by Alabama’s lone national championship-winning team in 2012.
Junior slugger Bailey Hemphill had arguably the best run-producing year in program history, setting single-season marks in both home runs (26) and RBI (84) to surpass Tide legend Kelly Kretchsman’s 25-home run tally set in 1998 and former teammate Marisa Runyon’s 80-RBI total from 2015.
Freshman ace Montana Fouts dominated in the circle, solidified her place atop an experienced and diverse five-person pitching staff despite her youth. This weekend she capped her first season by shutting out both No. 6 seed Arizona and No. 1 Oklahoma over 15 consecutive innings in back-to-back WCWS elimination games Saturday and Sunday just to force a winner-takes-all semifinal rematch with the powerful Sooners later Sunday.
“I think Montana even improved from Super Regionals to the World Series. She was much better in the World Series,” Murphy said of Fouts. “I mean, she shut out Oklahoma and Arizona, really back-to-back. That’s a pretty big feat.”
But as is the case following the conclusion of every season, Alabama was already moving on to its next incarnation — Team24 — during its annual end-of-the-year meeting inside Murphy’s hotel room in the Waterford Renaissance in uptown Oklahoma City.
“We had our meeting in the hotel like we always do,” Murphy said Monday. “We dismissed the senior class and thanked them for everything, and we started on Team24 and the upcoming seniors had a chance to say whatever they want to say. So it’s kind of like the passing of the torch.”
Among the rising seniors to speak up were center fielder Elissa Brown, shortstop Claire Jenkins and first baseman Hemphill.
“But this year there were a couple others that kinda chimed in: Kaylee Tow, Montana,” Murphy added. “It’s neat to see the maturity.”
Team24 will feature four new freshmen, including the Florida Gatorade Player of the Year in pitcher Lexi Kilfoyl, as well as one to two transfers, along with an experienced six-person senior class — the same number it had in 2012 — that includes multi-year starters in Brown, Jenkins and Hemphill, as well as 22-game winner Sarah Cornell in the circle. That’s in addition to a loaded junior class led by its No. 3 hitter all season in Tow and its recent leadoff hitter KB Sides, and returning sophomores like Fouts and sweet-hitting second baseman Skyler Wallace.
“Hopefully we’ll be bigger, better, stronger next year,” Murphy said. “I think we’re going to be good.”
While a Top-5 preseason ranking is all but guaranteed given how they ended this season, determining just how good is something that will take time to develop.
In the meantime, one outgoing Alabama senior is fairly confident Team24 will have what it takes to not only return to Oklahoma City, but potentially exceed this year’s success.
“I just hope that Elissa and Claire and Sarah and Bailey and all of the juniors can take a step up and step into a leadership role and continue to push this team to be better,” Hardy said. “This year they got a taste of the World Series, and I know that they will continue to have tremendous success. I’m excited.”